The Lake Wobegon Effect: Employee Performance and Customer Experience


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“Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Those closing words from Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion radio show monologue echo in my head whenever I hear companies make unrealistically laudatory (AKA grossly inflated) comments about their employees and customer experiences.

“What makes us distinct from our competitors is the caliber of our employees.”

News flash: give or take, about half of all employees are below average. This isn’t a criticism of workers; it’s a definitional characteristic of the meaning of “average.” This averaging effect also applies to any sub-group of employees. Let’s assume, for example, that doctors are above average in some way compared to the overall pool of workers (even though a recent study suggested doctors are not smarter than the general population). Across the population of doctors, about half will be below average compared to their peers. Let’s be even more selective: about half of all neurosurgeons will be below average among the neurosurgeon population. This “regression to the mean” is universal.

For companies requiring employees to be on-site the challenge is even more acute, unless they lay claim to such a unique geography that a preponderance of great employees just happen to live within commuting distance of their sites! The likelihood that a disproportionate share of the exceptionally talented live immediately in and around any specific area is between slim and none.

Hiring a Better Workforce?

So your employees are mediocre (a more brutal term than “average” but the same meaning) – how can they deliver a better-than-average customer experience?

Be more selective in your hiring? You already claim that. And the same principle comes into play: everyone insists they are more selective, so we are back at Lake Wobegon. (By the way, your recruiters and hiring practices probably are just average anyway, so what makes you think they get better results than the competition?)

It’s unlikely you can buy your way out of this conundrum by paying more: even assuming that better compensation will attract better qualified candidates, this approach will place an obvious strain on the company’s balance sheet.

What to do?

Cultivating a Better Workforce!

If you can’t find and recruit better raw talent, you can place a premium on relevant experience. More experience doesn’t equate to increased talent, but at least it suggests some proven capabilities.

More importantly, be realistic and focus on supporting and nurturing the average people you hire and strive to make them better prepared to deliver a superior customer experience. First and foremost, support means providing employees with the structure (systems and processes) and tools enabling them to be great at their job. Natural superstars might succeed regardless and even in the absence of structure and tools. But for the majority of employees the guidance, guardrails, and capabilities embedded in the infrastructure are likely to spell the difference between success and failure.

Beyond providing the infrastructure support for success, nurturing the workforce requires concentrating on

  • Training
  • Motivating
  • Leadership
  • Culture

Of course, you need to start with training on systems, processes, and tools. But don’t stop. Train again and reinforce. Add skills training relevant to the job, the company, or potential jobs. Think of training as an investment in improving the caliber of employees.

Motivation often is the differentiator between “satisfactory” (AKA average) and “good” (above average). Motivation comes in a variety of flavors, from incentives, recognition, and perks to communications, positive reinforcement, and physical environment.

Mediocrity relies on discipline and management, but cultivating improved performance requires leadership. Talk-the-talk and walk-the-talk. Lead the way, remove obstacles, enable success.

While intangible, the right culture makes everything else possible . . . or not. An open, honest, authentic culture that encourages innovation, appreciates employees as individuals, celebrates employees, and truly encourages a healthy work/life balance will provide an environment for employees to thrive and, as a result, be better at their jobs.

In other words, if you can’t find better raw talent, be a company that transforms their average workforce into an exceptional customer experience delivery system.

Then do your darndest to retain your best performers.


  1. Completely agree. There are a lot of companies – pick an industry – with a corps of mediocre, unmotivated, uncommitted employees slogging along within mediocre, passive, reactive and even toxic organizational cultures. That said, there are exemplary companies that have progressively learned to build, sustain, and link employee advocacy with customer advocacy and brand advocacy: In so doing, many of these organizations have achieved superior business outcomes.


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